President Joe Biden’s long-awaited American Jobs Plan has finally arrived, weighing in at $2.3 trillion in spending over 8 years. In today’s dollars, this is almost five times the new funding provided in President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And yet, as many have been quick to point out, significantly more investment is still needed to match the scale of the intersecting crises facing our nation and to unleash the full potential of the American economy.
While its current scale may fall short, one key takeaway from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is, it contains many strong illustrations of equity-based planning, putting the needs of underserved and disadvantaged communities at the fore. This is how all federal policy should be fashioned going forward.
As we look to bring our infrastructure up to speed with the 21st century, equitably distributed investments are how we begin to remedy the wrongs of a structurally racist transportation and housing system, reconstruct a more just urban environment, and improve the health and economic well-being of those who have been systemically disadvantaged by our past and current investments and programs. The following noteworthy components in Biden’s plan show we can move the needle on equity-based urban planning.
One important equity-centric expenditure — at roughly $115 billion — is focused on cutting emissions and reducing congestion. How is that helpful to communities of color and low-income communities? It begins to address what is all too familiar in many U.S. states: Black neighborhoods are 79% more likely than white neighborhoods to be exposed to industrial pollution, often from oil and gas refineries and petrochemical plants. And Black and Hispanic communities also bear the disproportionate burden from air pollution generated by white Americans, leading to disproportionate rates of asthma, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
By cutting emissions and reducing congestion, which this plan does, we begin to make neighborhoods healthier for all Americans and start chipping away at the disproportionate energy and pollution burdens faced by communities of color.
A second big equity boost — totaling over $160 billion — to improve and expand intercity rail and bus lines throughout America’s urban areas is again a critical investment in helping connect communities of color and low-income communities to places of employment, shopping, public space, parks and more.
Given that workers of color are two to three times more likely to not have a vehicle at home, public transit is an essential service for getting to and from work. Yet at the same time, workers of color are over-represented in experiencing longer commutes as result of inequitable city planning. And for many low-to-moderate income Americans, which represent two-thirds of public transportation users, public transit is inaccessible, inadequate, unavailable or unaffordable, because of — yet again — persistent inequities in transportation spending.
By investing in much-needed and long overdue rail and bus line improvements and expansions, we simultaneously invest in these underserved communities, making commute times shorter, family time longer and work time less exhausting.
A third substantial component is the $213 billion focused on housing, which is a necessary and long overdue prioritization of low-income and disadvantaged communities that have long suffered housing inequity and injustice in America.
What are we talking about specifically? Communities of color in formerly redlined neighborhoods now experience higher rates of “chronic disease, shorter lifespans, and greater risk factors for COVID-19” as consequence of poor housing quality. They are more likely to live in low-opportunity zones, more likely to be low-income renters, and dramatically over-represent those experiencing homelessness — a result, in part, to a history of discriminatory housing policy and planning.
By investing billions in housing rehabs, retrofits, upgrades and updates — as well as cleaner energy for these homes — we will save lives and dramatically improve health. This build-out of affordable and public housing is just the beginning of what will be necessary in repairing past wrongs in our history of housing injustice and discrimination and undoing America’s legacy of systemically racist housing policies.
A fourth key equity component of the plan is the $20 billion that’s focused on reconnecting communities divided and disjointed by highway construction — a dynamic that’s prevalent and pervasive in communities of color and low-income communities — while prioritizing racial equity in new construction. In many cities, highways represent the racial divide and modern-day structural racism, segregating and displacing communities of color and low-income communities and cutting them off from access to downtown centers. In fact, planning roads through Black communities was commonplace in American planning. It was termed “white roads through Black bedrooms.”
By investing in this critical work to reconnect communities, we begin to deconstruct a structurally racist highway system. This investment represents an important first step. But much more is needed — including sustained, long-term investment — to make our urban landscapes more equitable.
We could keep going. The $50 billion for infrastructure resilience, as another example, will be a serious boost for communities of color and low-income communities who are often the most impacted by climate disaster and live on the frontlines of rising sea levels and worsening storms. Other pieces of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan are also important in addressing the longstanding disparities in our society, including money for lessening pollution near ports and a much discussed and sizable investment in electric vehicles, which will have a tangible benefit in emissions reductions in urban centers.
All of the above is exactly the direction we need to go in building a fairer more equitable America. It is a good start. Now the work will fall on Congress to build upon this plan and create legislation that is truly transformative.
For too long, infrastructure has been inherently structurally racist. That era needs to end now. It’s time to build a renewed 21st-century America — one that is equitable for all.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chairwoman of the Smart Cities Caucus. Dr. Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. He lives in Brandon.